October 21 – Ka-Boom!

Today’s factismal: The world’s most famous chemist is known mostly for his charitable work.

Mining in the 1800s was a nerve-wracking job. Not only did you have to worry about bad air, cave-ins, and flooding, but the explosive of choice was almost as unstable as your boss. Known as nitroglycerin, it was easy and cheap to make but tricky and difficult to transport and use. It would go off if it got too hot or too cold, if it was jostled too much or not enough, or if it just didn’t like the way you looked at it. It frequently destroyed the factories where it was being made, and its habit of exploding while being moved led to laws against it being transported across state lines.

But in 1867, Alfred Nobel found a way to tame the beastly blast. By mixing the nitroglycerin with diatomaceous earth or sawdust, he was able to make it more stable and less dangerous. It could be easily stored and transported and could even be measured on the spot with very little chance of losing an arm. Needless to say, dynamite was an immediate hit and made Alfred Nobel very, very rich indeed. But every silver lining has a cloud, and dynamite had a big one.

Because nitroglycerine was so unstable, no sane Army would use it. But because dynamite was so stable, it immediately became the basis for new and more powerful weapons. Nobel knew this and it didn’t particularly bother him (his family fortune was founded in arms manufacturing), but it did upset a lot of other people. And when Alfred’s brother Ludvig died, he got an idea of just how much it bothered other folks. A French newspaper thought that it was Alfred that died, and took the opportunity to write one of the most scathing obituaries ever seen. The nicest thing that they called him was a “merchant of death”. Alfred was mortified.

He decided to redeem his family name. And, since science had gotten him into this predicament, he decided that science would get him out of it. He established the Nobel Prize, which was given out every year for the most important work in physics, chemistry, literature, and (in a deliberately ironic twist) peace. (Later groups would add an economics prize.) The Nobel Prize has become the gold standard of work and worth in the sciences and continues to this very day. Evey year on his birthday, the prizes are awarded in the name and memory of the most famous chemist ever to live.

If you’d like to learn more about this year’s winners in chemistry, then head over to:

October 20 – Bigger Than Big

Today’s factismal: The giant squid Architeuthis (“chief squid”) isn’t the biggest squid in the ocean but it is the longest.

There is no creature more fabled and fabulous than the giant squid. Mentioned in literature from the time of the Bible and featured in books as diverse as 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Moby Dick, it is known more by rumor than by fact. That’s because old Architeuthis (Archie to his friends) is a shy critter who prefers hiding in the deep water (the better to nab his favorite snack of other squids) to gamboling about where people can see him. Until very recently, Archie was known more by implication than by actual fact.

Architeuthis sucker scars on sperm whale skin (Image courtesy Magell Inc)

Architeuthis sucker scars on sperm whale skin
(Image courtesy McMillan Company)

What sort of implication? Consider the sperm whale. These behemoths love to munch on fish and squid, and (given their size-driven appetite) the bigger, the better. So it is only natural that sperm whales would chase down big squid like Archie and ask them to dinner. And it is only natural that Archie would vigorously decline the invitation, leaving giant sucker marks on the whale. Of course, when the whale would win the argument, there’d be the beak (the part that proves a squid to be a mollusc) left as an undigestible lump in its stomach which would be found when whalers insisted on the sperm whale joining them for a bite.

Until 2004, this was the only way we found giant squid  (Image courtesy Enrique Talledo)

Until 2004, this was the only way we found giant squid
(Image courtesy Enrique Talledo)

And then there were the rare sightings. Originally taken for nothing more than sailor stories, they acquired a great deal more importance once the sailors started backing up their tales with something more than scrimshaw. By the mid 1800s, we knew that there was a giant squid living in the ocean. But that was about all that we knew. It wasn’t until 2004 that images of a giant squid swimming around and chasing other squid surfaced. Since then, there have been many more sightings, but we continue to learn more about Archie.

Why they named it "Middle clawed" (Image courtesy Theudericus)

Why they named it “Middle clawed”
(Image courtesy Theudericus)

Including the fact that though Archie is the longest squid out there (a whopping 43 ft long from tip to tail for the women and 33 ft for the men), it is not the most massive squid in the oceans (“just” 606 lbs for the lady squids and a mere 303 lbs for the gents). Instead, the colossal squid known as Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni (“Hamilton’s middle clawed squid”) that lives in the waters near Antarctica outweighs it by a large margin; the largest recorded specimen of Hamie weighed 1,091 lbs! (Imagine half a ton of angry squid headed toward you…) However, though old Hamie is fat, he isn’t very long; they are only about 33 ft from tip to tail when grown.

So what can we learn from these not-so-gentle giants? First and foremost, there are plenty of exciting things still left to discover. From bigger-than-giant squids to smaller than a pin microbes, life is amazingly diverse and new discoveries lurk around every corner. Second, most of the sightings of Archie and Hamie happened when ordinary folks (that’s you and me) happened to see something and reported it to researchers. If you’d like to help, then why not join the Washington NatureMappers or start a project like that in your area?

October 19 – A New Low

Today’s factismal: The most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded was Wilma, with a low pressure in the eye of just 882 mbar.

If you are a meteorologist, then 2005 is probably your favorite year. Over the course of the year, there were so many tropical storms that they ran out of names and had to resort to using Greek letters. Of the 28 storms that developed, a record high of 15 would go on to become hurricanes and seven of those would become major hurricanes. And none of those was more major than Wilma.

Wilma at peak strength (Image courtesy NASA)

Wilma at peak strength
(Image courtesy NASA)

Wilma started as a tropical depression off of Jamaica on October 15. Two days later, she had become a tropical storm. By the 18th, she was a full-fledged hurricane and showing no signs of getting any weaker. Indeed, where most hurricanes are big, ungainly monsters with large eyewalls (which often indicates a weaker storm), Wilma had a fairly compact eyewall just two miles across (the smallest known) and peak winds of 185 mph! Those factors combined to give Wilma the lowest known pressure of any hurricane at just 882 mbar; to put that in perspective, remember that normal air pressure at sea level is 1013 mbar. In effect, the center of Wilma was at the same air pressure as Denver!

Naturally, a storm this intense caused lots of damage. Wilma killed at least 62 people (mostly through flooding and landslides) and caused $29 billion dollars in damage. Many of the deaths happened because Wilma’s path was unusually unpredictable; she changed directions several times, making it harder to know where she would hit. What the meteorologists needed was more observations in order to give better predictions. What they needed was people like the members of the Citizen Weather Observer Program who send in reports about severe weather (and the other kind, too) that is then used to make better predictions. If you think that you’ve got what it takes to be a CWOP member, head over to:

October 18 – Winner By A Landslide

One of the amazing things about science is how often things at one scale apply at another as well. For example, you can measure the way that a cup of lye reacts with a cup of water and know how much heat will be produced if you use a ton of lye and a ton of water instead. Or you can simulate an earthquake using a piece of spaghetti and that will teach you something about how the San Andreas behaves. Or, as Peter and Mary are about to discover, you can use a pile of rice to discover why the Earth is round.


The images on the television were both frightening and fascinating. There had been a heavy rainfall in California and the runoff was rapidly eroding the base of a cliff, causing parts of the cliff to collapse in large chunks that splashed mud and mayhem when they fell. That would have been fascinating enough but on top of the cliff were several multi-million dollar mansions that were following the formerly stable cliff on its downward plunge.

“Wow!” said Peter as he watched a particularly large chunk of a swimming pool fall twenty stories into the surf below. “That was amazing!”

“Yes,” agreed Mary. “I’m glad that they got all of the people out. But what about their stuff?”

“I guess they’ve got insurance,” Peter replied. “But why did they build on the cliff?”

“Probably for the view. But what I want to know is why isn’t the cliff still still standing?” Mary puzzled. “It was doing OK before the rain, so why fall now?”

“I dunno. Who could we ask?” Peter wondered.

“Well, Mr. Medes is on vacation this week, so we can’t ask him,” Mary said. “And your mom is an astronomer, so she wouldn’t know. That just leave my dad. But he’s an engineer. He probably won’t know either.”

“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” Peter said. “Let’s go ask him!”

With that the two young scientists left the den where they had been watching television and sought out Mary’s father. Since it was Saturday, the first place they checked was the kitchen; in addition to being a popular engineering professor at the local university, he was also an amateur gourmet chef who liked to make special meals on weekends. Sure enough, he was in front of the stove, cooking raw rice in oil and fragrant spices.

“Oh, boy!” Mary exclaimed. “Costless Rican Rice again?”

“You betcha!” her father replied. “I wanted to use up the last of that roast chicken and we had enough vegetables to make this interesting. Peter, would you like to stay for dinner?”

“I’ll ask my mom,” Peter said as his belly rumbled in response to the smell of the cooking. Mary’s father laughed at the sound.

“It sounds as if your stomach has already decided the answer will be ‘yes'”, he said as he stirred the rice. “So what may I do to help you two? Or are you just drawn to the sight of a master turning leftovers into a meal fit for a king?”

“We had a question about cliffs,” Mary said. “Why do they fall down?”

“That is an excellent question!” Her father boomed in response. “And I’ll tell you the answer just as soon as I toss these odds and ends into the rice.”

With that, Mary’s father scrapped chunks of cooked chicken and vegetables that were left over from the previous week’s meals into the rice. Pouring in a carefully measured amount of water, he gave the mass a final stir and put a lid on top. He then turned the heat down and turned to his daughter and her friend.

“So you want to know why cliffs fall down,” he said. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, we saw these cliffs in California that were falling apart and dragging the houses that were on top of them into the mud,” Mary said. “But the cliffs were only about two hundred feet tall. We’ve got skyscrapers that are ten times as tall. So why do the skyscrapers stand up and the cliffs fall down?”

“It turns out that you have come to exactly the right person to answer that question,” her father replied. “Though Peter’s mother might have done just as well; this applies to her field as well.”

“It does?” Peter asked. “How?”

“You’ll see!” Mary’s father replied. “To start with, we’ll need a couple of plates, some toothpicks, and some uncooked rice.”

Mary quickly went to the pantry and grabbed the things that her father had listed off. Her father took the plates from her and placed on in front of each of the scientists. He then gave them each a toothpick and poured a cupful of rice onto each plate.

“In front of each of you is a pile of rice,” he said. “What I want you to do is to make the tallest cliff of rice that you can by scraping away the rice at the bottom of the pile with the toothpick. When you are done, what do you think the cliff will look like?”

“It will be just like a real cliff,” Peter confidently said. “It will go straight up.”

“I’m no so sure,” Mary countered. “I think it will be a lot slope-ier. It will probably lean over more.”

“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” her father said. “Start scraping!”

What do you think will happen? Try the experiment yourself!

The two started scraping at the base of their rice piles. But as soon as they would start to build up a small cliff, the bottom would slide out and a small cascade of rice would flow down, turning the vertical wall into a horizontal slope. After a few minutes of diligent scraping, Peter tossed down his toothpick in disgust.

“I give up!” he declared. “The rice won’t make a cliff! It is even worse than what we saw on TV!”

“Peter’s right,” Mary agreed. “You can’t make a tall cliff out of rice.”

“You are both right,” her father said. “You can’t make a tall cliff out of rice and you can’t make a skyscraper out of sand. And in both cases, the reason is the same.”

“It is?” Mary asked.

“Yes,” her father replied. “What is happening is that every stack of stuff is a balance of two things. There is gravity, which is pushing down on all the parts of it and there is cohesiveness which is trying to keep everything together. When gravity pushed on the center of a pile of rice or a cliff or a skyscraper, the force is straight down. That creates pressure on the grains of rice which gets bigger as you go deeper into the pile. The rice on top feels very little pressure while the rice at the bottom feels a lot. If the pressure on a grain of rice is about the same as the pressure on the grains around it, everything is stable and nothing moves. But if the pressure is lower on one side, then things naturally try to move in that direction. And when the difference in pressure is greater than the cohesiveness, then -“

“You get a landslide!” Mary exclaimed.

“That’s right!” her father agreed. “If you watched carefully during your experiment, then you probably saw that the rice-slides only happened on the side where you were scraping. That was because that was the only side where the pressure was changing.”

“Oh!” Peter said with a look of sudden understanding. “And that’s why the cliffs were falling. When the water eroded enough of the base, the pressure from the dirt piled up in the cliff was more than the strength of the stuff holding the cliff together and – pow! – we got a landslide!”

“That’s right. And that should also tell you why you can’t build a twenty story cliff of rice or a two hundred story cliff of sand,” Mary’s father said.

“Because rice isn’t as strong as sand and that’s not as strong as the steel in a skyscraper!” Mary said. “But why could Peter’s mother have told us this, too?”

“Because she works with planets,” her father replied. “And the one part of the definition of a planet that everyone agrees on is that they are round thanks to their own gravity.”

“I don’t get it,” Peter said.

“Imagine that you are building a cliff of sand,” Mary’s father said. “What happens if it gets too tall?”

“Some of it collapses,” Peter said.

“OK, now imagine that you’ve got a pile of sand as big as a planet,” Mary’s father said. “What happens to that cliff?”

“It will collapse,” Mary said.

“And if the cliffs that creates are too tall?”

“Then they will collapse too,” Peter said.

“And what happens if you keep doing that all around the planet-sized sand pile?” Mary father asked.

“I get it!” Mary said. “No matter where you look, the sand piles can only be so tall. And that means that everywhere you look, everything is about the same distance from the center of the planet. And that makes it -“

“Round!” Peter and Mary chorused together.

“That’s right,” Mary’s father said. “And now, if you two will clean up your budding planets and if Peter will call his mother, we can eat dinner.”

With that reminder, Peter’s stomach once more rumbled threateningly and all three laughed as they set the table for dinner.


October 17 – Live! On TV!

Today’s factismal: The first earthquake to be shown live on television happened in 1989.

It was a balmy October evening in San Francisco. The Giants were competing with the Oakland A’s for the pennant, and the two teams were warming up in preparation for game three. As the television sports casters searched for something to add a little local color to the broadcast, they were given the greatest exclusive in history: an earthquake struck the area. And not some piddly little 4.0; this was a 6.9 Mb earthquake! As the anchors tried to describe what was happening, the world saw buildings shake, highways fall, and homes crumble into rubble.

A section of the collapsed highway (Image courtesy USGS)

A section of the collapsed highway
(Image courtesy USGS)

Amazingly, there were only 63 people killed in the earthquake (the 1905 temblor was about 30 times stronger and killed 3,000 people). Most of these happened in Oakland where a double-decker highway collapsed on itself. Interestingly, many credit the baseball game for the low fatality count. Because many people had left work early in order to watch the game, the highways were relatively uncrowded which meant that fewer people were hurt.

California is almost certain to have another large earthquake in the next three decades (Image courtesy SCEC)

California is almost certain to have another large earthquake in the next three decades
(Image courtesy SCEC)

But what is even more amazing is that the danger isn’t over. There is a 99.7% chance that California will have another earthquake at least as powerful as this one in the next thirty years. So we know when the next big on will happen (soon); what we don’t know is where. And that’s where you can help. The USGS and Stanford University are developing a new type of distributed seismometer that uses the accelerometers in tablets, smartphones, and computers to provide more complete coverage of earthquakes; the data that this Quake Catcher Network gathers will then help them to narrow down when we can expect the next big one. If you’d like to take part, head over to:

October 16 – Almost Home

Today’s factismal: The closest known extrasolar planet is Alpha Centauri Bb, a mere 4.4 light years away!

There’s an old astronomy joke that goes “What is the name of the closest star?” Ask that of most people and they will say “Alpha Centauri”; of course they would be wrong (the correct answer is “Sol” or “our Sun”). But there is a newer joke that just became possible a year ago; it asks “What is the name of the closest Earth-like planet?” Though the correct answer is “Terra”, “Tellus”, “Dirt”, or “Earth” (they all mean the same thing), the best answer is “Alpha Centauri Bb”.

That’s because astronomers have discovered a planet just slightly larger than Earth (1.13 times our mass, 1.04 times our size) that is orbiting the second brightest star in the Alpha Centauri system. The three stars that make up Alpha Centauri are a bit strange; the two brightest (A and B) orbit each other at a distance ranging from that of Saturn to that of Pluto while the dimmest of the three (Proxima centauri) orbits the AB pair at what would be the distance of our Oort cloud (home of the comets). Using highly tuned spectroscopes, the astronomers were able to sort out a slight shift in the light from Alpha Centauri B that indicated a planet which they gave the designation of Alpha Centauri Bb.

An artist's deception of what the Alpha Centauri Bb system might look like (Image courtesy ESA)

An artist’s deception of what the Alpha Centauri Bb system might look like
(Image courtesy ESA)

Of course, there is some skepticism in the scientific community over whether or not Bb actually exists (hey, we’re scientists; skepticism is just what we do), especially given that no-one has observed Bb passing across the face of Alpha centauri B. However, that just means that we’re spending a lot more time watching that part of the skies right now. If you’d like to join in on the fun but don’t happen to have a 30 meter telescope in your backyard, then why not become a Planet Hunter? Using Keppler data, you’ll be able to discover planets of your very own!

October 15 – Smoking Hot

Today’s factismal: Thirteen years ago, the Galileo probe made the closest approach ever to Jupiter’s moon Io; it was just 112 miles away from the surface of the moon!

The four largest moons of Jupiter (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto) have a special place in the minds of all planetologists. They were the first new planets to be discovered in modern times (they were originally called planets; the astronomers only started calling them moons when there were too many to count on the astronomers’ fingers). They helped establish the validity of the Copernican model of the universe and destroy the Earth-centered one. And they helped to establish Galileo’s reputation as a scientist, which then helped change science from a descriptive endeavor to an experimental one.

Though the four Galilean moons are easily visible with a pair of binoculars, it wasn’t until Voyager 1 and 2 passed by that we got our first good look at them. And perhaps the most surprising of the four was Io. A small, rocky world, it was rapidly revealed to be the most volcanically active body in the Solar System. Covered by lava flows and sulfur frost, it was unlike any of the other moons we’ve seen. Obviously, it needed to be explored in more detail.

A close-up image of Io, taken by the Galileo probe (Image courtesy NASA)

A close-up image of Io, taken by the Galileo probe
(Image courtesy NASA)

And so we sent out another probe. Launched in 1989 and named Galileo for the discoverer of the four moons, its primary mission was to map Jupiter’s moons and to discover the secrets of Jupiter’s atmosphere using a secondary probe. And, from the time it arrived at Jupiter in 1995 until its final plunge into Jupiter’s atmosphere in 2003, it returned over 14,000 images of Jupiter and its moons that have forever changed the way that we see planetary formation.

If you’d like to learn more about the Galileo probe (or any other planetary probe), then why not join the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers? They’ve got lots of information on every planet (even Earth), along with several citizen science projects that you can get involved with! http://alpo-astronomy.org/